I keep saying that, in the age of COVID-19, everything old is new again in terms of antivaccine messaging and conspiracy theories, sometimes to the point where I annoy my readers with repetition. Indeed, yesterday I pointed out how “new school” anti-COVID-19 vaccine antivaxxers such as Steve Kirsch and Dr. Peter McCullough had fully embraced “old school” antivax conspiracy theories and pseudoscience, particularly of the “vaccines-cause-autism” variety albeit in the case of Dr. McCullough with a lot of added transphobia. After pointing out how Kirsch, in particular, had gone totally down the rabbit hole, I couldn’t help but note how he had recently started Tweeting about an old antivax conspiracy theory that I used to write about quite a bit—way too much, unfortunately—back in the day, the so-called “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory.
The CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory was the second conspiracy theory that I watched being born before my eyes, the first variety of conspiracy theories being 9/11 Truther conspiracy theories. More importantly from the perspective of two decades countering antivaccine misinformation, it was the first one that I wrote about and deconstructed right from the beginning as it was being born, starting right when Andrew Wakefield’s video featuring Brian Hooker first dropped in August 2014. It’s hard to believe that the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory has been around for nearly nine years now, but so it has, and its resurrection by Steve Kirsch and his fellow antivaxxers is yet another example of two things. First, antivax conspiracy theories never die. They merely disappear for a while, evolve, and then rise again. Second, to quote Yoda again with respect to antivax pseudoscience and conspiracy theories, once you start down the dark path (of antivax), forever will it dominate your destiny—consume you it will. I’m watching quite a few “only COVID-19 vaccine” antivaxxers becoming just antivaxxers and being consumed by antivax misinformation, with Steve Kirsch being the most risibly pathetic of the bunch thus far.
To be honest, after the COVID-19 pandemic hit and my blogging became consumed with countering COVID-19 misinformation, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories, I never thought I’d be writing about the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory again, but here we are. After Wednesday’s post, I thought that it might be useful for me to comment as someone who has been following the conspiracy theory since the beginning. Indeed, my first post about it is dated August 22, 2014. As an aside, in it I joked that, even if everything the “CDC whistleblower” said were correct, it would have proven Andrew Wakefield mostly wrong, because, even if you take everything claimed at face value, there was not a hint of a whiff of a correlation between the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and autism in any subgroup other than Black boys. (More on that later.)
First, let’s see how Steve Kirsch resurrected the conspiracy theory on Twitter.
Steve Kirsch and the CDC whistleblower
Yesterday, Steve Kirsch, a tech bro turned COVID-19 “early treatment” advocate turned COVID-19 antivaxxer turned just plain old antivaxxer, Tweeted this:
A couple of hours later, he Tweeted this, which regular readers will know as a reference to the CDC whistleblower:
And a couple of hours later yesterday:
Matt Carey, of course, is an autism advocate who back in the day was a prolific blogger over at Left Brain, Right Brain refuting antivax conspiracy theories about vaccines and autism while promoting acceptance of autistic people. He still posts there, but is a lot less prolific than he was in the old days. Most importantly, a lot of his work influenced my work in deconstructing the claims of the CDC whistleblower.
So let’s get to the claims.
The CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory, explained
Let’s go back to the very beginning, way, way back to August 2014, when Andrew Wakefield dropped the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory on the world, and I wrote about it. The claims being put forward in the video is that earlier MMR vaccination is associated with an increased risk of autism in African-American boys and that the CDC has spent the last 13 years covering this linkage up. These charges are based the result of a “reanalysis” by Brian Hooker published in 2014 in Translational Neurodegeneration entitled Measles-mumps-rubella vaccination timing and autism among young African American boys: a reanalysis of CDC data. The study that Hooker had “reanalyzed” was from a study by DeStefano et al (and of which the “CDC whistleblower” William W. Thomas was a co-author) published in Pediatrics in 2004 entitled Age at first measles-mumps-rubella vaccination in children with autism and school-matched control subjects: a population-based study in metropolitan Atlanta. Note that Hooker’s paper was retracted in October 2014, for these reasons:
The Editor and Publisher regretfully retract the article  as there were undeclared competing interests on the part of the author which compromised the peer review process. Furthermore, post-publication peer review raised concerns about the validity of the methods and statistical analysis, therefore the Editors no longer have confidence in the soundness of the findings. We apologise to all affected parties for the inconvenience caused.
From my perspective, this paper was such a stinking, drippy turd of a paper that it never should have been accepted in any reputable journal, which is why it was originally accepted by Translational Neurodegeneration and why it was absolutely hilarious that such a journal ultimately retracted it.
To go into a bit more detail, DeStefano et al was a case control study of children in metropolitan Atlanta conducted to “compare ages at first measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccination between children with autism and children who did not have autism in the total population and in selected subgroups, including children with regression in development.” Basically, it found no association between MMR vaccination and the risk of autism or, to put it more precisely in a case-control study:
Similar proportions of case and control children were vaccinated by the recommended age or shortly after (ie, before 18 months) and before the age by which atypical development is usually recognized in children with autism (ie, 24 months).
Basically, it was yet another of a whole slew of negative studies failing to find a correlation between vaccines, in this case the MMR vaccine, and the risk of subsequently developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD). One of the first things I noticed was that Hooker took data collected for a case-control study, in which one looks at cases (in this case children with autism) and controls (without autism) and compare exposures (in this case vaccines) and did what looked like a cohort study, in which researchers look at groups of people who vary in exposure to a given putative risk factor (for instance, vaccines), each controlled for every other potential risk factor that the authors can control for, and then determine if the condition for which that putative risk factor is suspected to be a risk factor for. Think of it this way: Case control = comparing risk factor frequency in people with a condition compared to controls, while cohort = examining risk of condition in people with different exposures to a putative risk factor.
You can read the details in my original writeup, but to make a long story short, Hooker analyzed case-control data as a cohort study and found a 3.36-fold increased risk for autism in Black males who received MMR vaccination before the age of 36 months in this dataset. Hooker also did multiple subset analyses, which, of course, are prone to false positives. As we also say, if you slice and dice the evidence more and more finely, eventually you will find apparent correlations that might or might not be real. In this case, I highly doubted Hooker’s correlation was real, and the ultimate retraction of the paper bore that suspicion out.
There was also a claim that the requirement in DeStefano et al for birth certificate data whenever possible was a
nefarious arbitrary way to “hide” any association between MMR and autism, when in reality requiring the birth certificate was not an “arbitrary” criterion. It allowed investigators to account for known confounders related to autism risk, such as birth weight, at least in this subset of the case and control groups. I also can’t help but think there is likely to be a confounder that is unaccounted for in this study, particularly given how there increase in risk is found in only one group. In fact, as Reuben at The Poxes Blog explained at the time, there almost certainly was just such a confounder, and the analysis method chosen by Hooker was highly suspect. I could go on and on, but let’s just say that Hooker’s reanalysis was very bad and incompetently done, or, as was pointed out on Twitter:
Unfortunately, before the pandemic Hooker’s “reanalysis” kept resurfacing. I couldn’t help but include images of walkers from The Walking Dead because that was one of my favorite TV shows at the time. In 2018 it found its final home in that journal of bonkers right-wing pseudoscience, the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, which is the house journal of what I like to call a medical John Birch Society disguised as a medical professional organization, specifically the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). It’s an appropriate home for this ideology-inspired bit of bad science, I guess.
So where does the conspiracy theory come in? I’ve only alluded to parts of it; so let’s dig in. First, it comes from a claim that the CDC held back the raw data analysis that showed the 3.4-fold increased risk of autism in Black boys associated with receiving the MMR. However, there were also claims that the CDC excluded subjects inappropriately in order to make that increased risk go away. More importantly, the origin of the conspiracy theory comes from where Hooker got the idea to do his reanalysis.
Enter the “CDC whistleblower.”
William W. Thompson: The “whistleblower” revealed!
I’ll preface this section by noting how surreal it was to observe the birth of this conspiracy theory in real time in August 2014 and watch as it grew and metastasized. (Sadly, since COVID-19 hit, I’ve watched so many more conspiracy theories begin, grow, and metastasize.) Unfortunately, like so many conspiracy theories, the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory has proven resistant, if not impervious, to facts, science, reason, and reality. Here’s where the actual “CDC whistleblower” comes in, because all good antivax conspiracy theories have to have some “brave” soul who has the guts to reveal the coverup. In this conspiracy theory, the “whistleblower” was a senior scientist in the Immunization Branch named William W. Thompson, who, for reasons that still remain unclear, had reached out to Brian Hooker sometime in November 2013.
The apparent reason that Thompson first contacted Hooker, besides his being disgruntled with DeStefano and CDC leadership, was that in the original DeStefano et al study there was an anomalous result in one subgroup suggesting a correlation between MMR and autism that was almost certainly spurious. Thompson, however, thought that the result had been inappropriately deemphasized. Over the next several months, the two engaged in a series of rather long telephone calls. Unfortunately for Thompson, he was far too trusting, as Hooker recorded every call in which Thompson vented his complaints about DeStefano and multiple other CDC scientists and employees. Hooker in turn was also far too trusting in that he apparently sent electronic files containing some of the recorded phone calls to Andrew Wakefield, who then wasted little time taking snippets of Thompson’s accusations and publicizing them with an inflammatory video that compared the supposedly “covered up result” in the paper to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. (The subgroup in question was Black boys.) Based on Thompson’s telling Hooker how to access the data set used for DeStefano et al, Hooker did his own incredibly incompetent “reanalysis” of the data, as I described above.
A carefully cherry-picked sample of four of of these calls between Hooker and Thompson were transcribed and ultimately served as the basis of a book by an antivax lawyer named Kevin Barry, Vaccine Whistleblower: Exposing Autism Research Fraud at the CDC, which I read and reviewed, as did other science advocates, including an epidemiologist and a law professor, both of whom have commented on this blog extensively before. Personally, I like the part where the epidemiologist remarks on Hooker’s statement that “I am not an epidemiologist by training” with a pithy, “And it shows.”
This statement from Hooker in particular demonstrates that:
Now I, when I, I wanted to correct for low birthweight. So I threw out low birthweight.Yes, the way to correct for low birthweight is to throw out low birthweight! Any epidemiologist will tell you that…not.
I’ll also refer you to all of those references because there have developed so many twists and turns in this conspiracy theories that are difficult to unpack in one post, including complicated claims regarding mental retardation and autism versus “autism only.” In any case, you don’t need to know every detail to understand that this is a conspiracy theory. In any case, why did the “CDC whistleblower” ever contact an antivaxxer like Brian Hooker?
Reading Kevin Barry’s book publishing what are represented as as transcripts of what are clearly four cherry-picked phone calls out of of thirty, I got the impression that Thompson was aggrieved with the leadership of the CDC in general and the lead author of the 2004 study, Frank DeStefano, in particular. It appears that, sometime after they started talking, he started funneling information to Hooker. Also in his conversations with Barry, Thompson misinterpreted studies, including one of his own, and admitted that the only reason he was staying in his branch of the CDC was so that he could funnel information to Hooker. As I characterized it at the time, Thompson’s words were the words of a very angry man who had clearly been nursing a grudge against his former colleagues since at least 2003. As part of that “funneling” of information to Hooker, Thompson apparently told him how to get access to the dataset for the DeStefano et al paper, even though the dataset could be publicly accessed by request.
Some of the claims that developed as the retelling of the conspiracy theory went on got quite ludicrous after Thompson lawyered up, his lawyer Rick Morgan filing for whistleblower protections for Thompson, after which he issued a statement, after which Thompson went completely silent publicly. He has remained so for nearly nine years now. Thompson’s statement through his lawyer noted that Hooker had recorded his telephone conversations without permission. He also “apologized” for leaving out “statistically significant information” in DeStefano et al, casting his “revelations” as “scientific disagreement” while insinuating a subtext of unethical behavior by his co-authors. Meanwhile, he provided what was described as a large trove of documents to an antivaccine-sympathetic legislator, Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL).
Now here’s the hilarious thing and where Kirsch’s attacks on science and autism advocate Matt Carey come in. It turns out that Carey got a hold of the actual “CDC whistleblower” document dump, and he did it in the simplest way you can imagine. He just asked Rep. Posey’s office for the documents, and someone actually sent him an electronic copy of the roughly 1,000 scanned pages that Thompson had provided Posey. After Carey posted his take on the documents, I, too, took a look. There were no “garbage cans full of documents” that Thompson had described as the fate of a lot of the study documents and no evidence of any data being deleted in any way that was inappropriate or not according to CDC and federal government guidelines.
Another claim in the conspiracy theory was that DeStefano and his coinvestigators had changed the study protocol after the collection of data had begun, which is generally a scientific no-no for studies of this type because changing the protocol after data collection begins can be done in order to influence the result of the analysis and can be scientific misconduct. Again, basically, contrary to Thompson’s claims, amplified by the antivax movement, were no changes in the study protocol after data collection had begun. This “document dump” turned out to be a big nothingburger. Yet, this conspiracy theory, like Pizzagate, refuses to die and, like Pizzagate, continues to cause harm, even now, three years into a deadly pandemic.
Interestingly, Kirsch claims to have spoken to Thompson, which, I suppose, is possible:
The ultimate result of the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory originally “unveiled” by Andrew Wakefield after he found out that Brian Hooker had been recording telephone conversations with a disgruntled CDC scientist named William Thompson was the antivax conspiracyfest of a movie disguised as a documentary, VAXXED, which I reviewed in detail not long after its release in 2016, sarcastically noting that Leni Reifenstahl, were she still alive when VAXXED was released, would have cried, “Das ist enug!” or even “Zu viel!” (I know I use that joke a lot, but it’s just too damned appropriate.) The CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory is basically at the heart of VAXXED, which then expands upon it to add it to the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement, namely that “They” (the CDC) “knows” that vaccines cause autism but are “covering it up,” but that a brave “whistleblower” (William Thompson) has, with the help of Brian Hooker, revealed The Truth, that vaccines cause autism.
Speaking of VAXXED, Dr. Peter McCullough (whom I just wrote about yesterday), in another example of resurrecting seven-year-old antivax propaganda for “new school” antivaxxers, actually reviewed the documentary a few months ago. Unsurprisingly, it was a favorable review, although, oddly enough, he echoes my viewpoint on it by entitling his review Nothing New Under the Sun. Of course, where I tend to use the phrase ironically and, hopefully, educationally, Dr. McCullough uses it to indicate his current belief that vaccines were always more harmful than beneficial and to reiterate his belief that there must be something to the claims that vaccines cause autism. Also unsurprisingly, Dr. McCullough totally buys into the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory and is particularly impressed with anecdotal evidence:
A major character in the film is senior CDC scientist, William W. Thompson, who, in 2014, contacted the biologist and autism researcher, Dr. Brian Hooker, as well as US Congressmen Bill Posey (R-FL). Thompson stated that his colleagues at the CDC had, in fact, documented evidence of a link between the early administration of the MMR vaccine and autism—especially in African American boys—but had chosen to destroy the evidence. Instead of publishing their true findings, they presented a paper with an altered dataset that concealed the link. Thompson, who was listed as one of the authors, claimed his bad conscience had spurred him to become a whistleblower.
As I watched VAXXED, I was most struck by the parents’ testimony. As producer Del Bigtree pointed out, many of these parents are intelligent and reasonable people who are acutely aware of sudden changes in their children. Mothers are exquisitely sensitive to what is going on with their infants. It is therefore the height of arrogant obtuseness to dismiss their testimony out of hand.
Of course, no one dismissed these anecdotes out of hand. In fact, millions of dollars were poured into research efforts to determine whether vaccines are indeed a risk factor for autism. Many studies in addition to DeStefano et al have led to the robust conclusion that they are not, or, to state it in the most conservative way possible: If vaccines are a risk factor for autism the effect size is so incredibly small as to be undetectable by several very large and well-designed epidemiological studies. Indeed, as I like to say, even if DeStefano et al was a fraudulent study, you can throw it out of our current evidence base and still be left with an overwhelming mountain of evidence showing no detectable association between vaccination and autism spectrum disorders.
This is a good place to ask once again: Do I need to remind everyone yet again that, even if every single one of Thompson’s claims were true and if Hooker’s “reanalysis” were the more appropriate way to analyze the Atlanta data compared to DeStefano et al, all Hooker could come up with was an unadjusted result in a small subgroup, namely Black boys, who had received the MMR before 36 months of age? Even if you accept at face value the conspiracy theory—which you most definitely should not—and Hooker’s reanalysis—which you also most definitely should not—the worst that can be said is that the study might have found very preliminary evidence of a link between MMR and autism in just black boys. Basically, Hooker mostly proved Wakefield wrong!
Why is this conspiracy theory rising from the dead again?
I’ll conclude by considering the question of why the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory has been resurrected and spread on Twitter over the last week or so, for example:
My take on this boils down to what I discussed at the beginning. First, once you go down the dark path of antivax conspiracy theories, it’s hard to resist going further and further down. When you run out of COVID-19 antivax conspiracy theories, there’s only one way to go, and that’s into older antivax conspiracy theories, such as the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory. Why antivaxxers like Steve Kirsch have latched onto this old antivax chestnut, which has been out of anything resembling more mainstream circulation since at least 2018, now and have decided to make a concerted effort to spread it, I cannot say. It should not, however, surprise anyone that COVID-19 antivaxxers are now unearthing old antivax conspiracy theories and spreading them around now. If they hadn’t discovered the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory now, they would have discovered it eventually. It has everything a “new school” COVID-19 antivaxxer could want and has become accustomed to: The CDC “covering up data” for nefarious purpose, a brave maverick scientist showing the coverup, and a “whistleblower” exposing the “coverup.”
Everything old is new again, and COVID-19 antivaxxers are predictably turning into just antivaxxers.